Bodhisattva (Tibetan: jang chub sem pa. English: heroic aspirant to enlightenment): The word ‘bodhisattva’ from the Sanskrit language is a Buddhist technical term relating to motivation, qualification, and level of spiritual attainment. It is a primary term found in the Mahayana Sutras as practiced in Northern Buddhism (North India, Himalayas, Central Asia and East Asia) and its meaning is included in the definition of Mahayana Buddhism distinguishing it from other forms of Buddhism such as Theravada of South Asia.

From the point of view of Himalayan art ‘bodhisattva’ is a term used to describe a peaceful god-like appearance based on the deities of the classic Hindu pantheon. As described in the literature of the Sutras and Tantras, male and female figures are portrayed as beautiful, wearing silks and jewels, playful in posture and depicted in the bloom of youth, sixteen years of age. Gender is often difficult to distinguish. Examples of these subjects are Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara and Maitreya for the males and Tara and Sarasvati for the females. Bodhisattva appearance and god-like appearance are synonymous and are generally applied to subjects that are peaceful, non-historical human, non-wrathful, and non-buddha-like in appearance.

As a religious term ‘bodhisattva’ means a heroic aspirant to enlightenment. An individual becomes a ‘bodhisattva’ by taking up the enlightenment thought (bodhichitta) through one of two standard rituals, sometimes called an ordination, following either of the paramount philosophical schools of Yogachara or Madhyamaka. A bodhisattva is a practitioner of the enlightenment thought which is the aspiration to achieve complete enlightenment as a perfect Buddha for the benefit of oneself and all other sentient beings in the universe.

Based on spiritual attainment bodhisattvas are divided into two groups: first, there are ordinary people, men and women who are followers of Northern Buddhism that have participated in the ritual of the enlightenment thought and are now considered to be ordinary bodhisattvas. Second, there are the special students of the Buddha, special bodhisattvas, spoken of in the ancient Mahayana Sutras. Examples of these, referred to by the title of bodhisattva or great (maha) bodhisattva, are Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara and Maitreya. They are known as realized or enlightened bodhisattvas based on a system of ten levels, or grounds of spiritual realization, that progressively lead to complete enlightenment – buddhahood. The ordinary bodhisattvas, following the behaviour of the special bodhisattvas as examples, engage in a course of practice modeled on the system of these ten levels.

The aspiration to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all beings has three special similes to characterize three mental attitudes used in accomplishing the goal of enlightenment. They are King-like, Captain-like and Shepherd-like. The King-like attitude has the intention to lead beings by example and reach enlightenment first - bringing all beings safely along behind. The Captain-like attitude, just like a good ships captain, brings everybody on board together, and as a group safely crosses over to enlightenment. With the Shepherd-like attitude the flocks of beings are ushered ahead while the bodhisattva guides from behind. The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is famous for his discourses in the Mahayana Sutras on the Shepherd-like attitude. Shakyamuni Buddha as a bodhisattva was an example of the King-like attitude.

Jeff Watt 9-2005

 


Copyright © Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation